Viriditas is a song cycle by Irish singer and artist Ceara Conway for The Deepest Shade of Green, an Arts and Health programme for Galway 2020 European Capital of Culture. Commissioned by Saolta Arts and Galway 2020, it was created for the staff and patients of the seven hospitals of Saolta University Health Care Group and can be accessed online by everyone.
Guiding the listener through the Kartvelian, Irish, and English languages, Viriditas includes newly composed contemporary songs and traditional European healing songs and rhythms from Georgia and Italy. Developed following a process of engagement with the hospital community, the album’s ten songs touch upon some of the great emotions that arise within healing contexts: celebration, humour, caring, healing, hope and loss.
During the research phase of the project the artist engaged staff and patients at University Hospital Galway (UHG) and Merlin Park University Hospital (MPUH). This engagement included meeting with members of two hospital staff choirs and representatives from diverse care contexts and disciplines spanning Haemodialysis, Care for the Elderly, Bereavement, Clinical Engineering, Management and Administration, Pastoral Care, Cardiology, Chemotherapy and Medical Records. The artist also facilitated participatory singing workshops for staff at both hospitals.
- To extend Galway 2020 European Capital of Culture opportunities to hospital communities across the West and North West region.
- As part of a wider programme of exhibitions and commissioned artworks, to explore the importance of connecting hospitals with the natural world and of listening to and learning from those who use them.
- As part of an overall programming objective, to bring nature and familiar landscapes of the West into the wards, corridors, and waiting rooms of Saolta to enhance the hospital experience of patients, staff and visitors – allowing them to imaginatively escape the clinical environment or reconnect with places otherwise out of reach.
- In connecting internationally acclaimed artists with a diverse hospital community, to promote access to high quality cultural experiences free from the barriers to participation outside and to devise innovative means for this engagement to manifest in buildings that are not purpose-built for the arts.
- As part of an overall programming objective, to provide artists with opportunities to engage with the hospital community, drawing from its diverse expertise and experience and developing experimental new work for new audiences.
- The artist’s aims were to compose songs that celebrate and examine the use of medicinal plants in both traditional and modern medicine, and songs that explore our relationship to the natural world and social systems and how they affect our health.
Ceara travelled to Georgia in September 2018 to learn traditional Georgian healing songs with ensemble Ialoni, then shared these new techniques and traditional healing songs from Ireland and Africa in a series of staff singing workshops at Galway University Hospitals (GUH) in May 2019. Her desk-based research encompassed the medicinal properties of plants, old Irish words for them, and modern and medieval papers including Hildegard von Bingen, Niall Mac Coitir and Gabor Maté.
This was complemented by a process of engagement with the staff and patients of two hospitals. Ceara attended a Grand Rounds event for medics on the Principles of End of Life Care and, based on a list of research areas defined by the artist, Saolta Arts facilitated appropriate introductions and a series of one-to-one meetings. In addition to these curated introductions, an open call inviting expressions of interest from all hospital staff and a concise questionnaire devised by the artist were circulated in staff rest areas and by email, though this yielded a low response. By these means, her research was informed by the diverse perspectives of patients, doctors, nurses, porters, clerical staff and other allied health professionals.
The process led to collaborative methodologies engaging the hospitals’ Senior Physicist in exploring the adverse effects of noise on healing in healthcare systems and recording specific hospital equipment for use in the song cycle. Ceara also engaged the MPUH Hospital Gardener in creating a series of photographs for the project. Collaboration and research outside the hospital involved a sound healer, a chant performer, a herbalist, a theatre practitioner and music for wellbeing programmes.
The composing process was experimental, melding traditional sean-nós with medieval chant in Plant Chant and fusing the old Irish poem An Damhan Alla agus an Mhíoltóg with the pizzica tarantella style of Italian folk music historically used to heal the bite of a spider. Ceara composed a contemporary arrangement of a medieval chant for four voices in the song cycle’s title track and in other tracks incorporated healing frequencies, including audio samples of hospital equipment and plants. The project supported new musical collaborations with singer/songwriter Anna Mullarkey, male vocalists Peter Mannion and Richard Fitzgerald, and musician and producer Jack Talty.
The artist devised a series of intimate live performances of Viriditas for patients accompanied by Anna Mullarkey following extensive site visits and a process of consultation with Saolta Arts and nursing staff. The performances took place over four days in February 2020 in eight diverse care contexts across two hospital sites. This spanned individual performances at bedsides and at the doorways of isolation rooms, promenade style performances in large wards, poignant A cappella renditions in the ICU and Acute Stroke Unit, upbeat sing-songs in day rooms, and impromptu performances on corridors and landings, greeting the unsuspecting occupants of lifts.
Ceara and Anna returned to Saolta in September for Culture Night 2020, performing live in Portiuncula University Hospital Chapel, using the streaming equipment for masses to televise the performance to patients’ bedsides – navigating the restrictions in place due to COVID-19. A limited edition CD of Viriditas was produced for gifting to patients across the Saolta University Health Care Group. It is available to listen and download at saoltaarts.com
- Three staff participatory singing workshops.
- A series of intimate live performances for patients and staff in three hospitals.
- A body of artist’s research.
- A limited edition CD with commissioned artwork by illustrator Ann McBride.
- A downloadable online version of the song cycle available to everyone.
- A series of photographs by the artist for promotional use.
Staff were contacted for feedback on the participatory singing workshops. The residency was monitored through regular meetings and correspondence between the artist and Saolta Arts. The artist submitted project updates to the commissioners on the progress of her research residency and the commissioned work.
Saolta Arts is working with Galway 2020 on an online survey to invite feedback on the online legacy of Viriditas. Whilst questionnaires were prepared for the evaluation of performances, the project highlighted the difficulty in gathering such data and whether it is appropriate immediately following the benevolent act of these intimate human connections.
The Traditional Healing Songs staff workshops at GUH were attended by 18 participants with different levels of singing experience. One participant reflected that despite their initial nerves, 'it felt brilliant singing together as part of a group. I really surprised myself. It was good to meet new colleagues outside my own area of work'.
Based on the success of the workshops, additional funding was secured to run the same workshop for staff at Roscommon University Hospital (RUH) and Portiuncula University Hospital (PUH) as part of a wider goal to roll Saolta Arts programming out across Saolta’s seven sites. Though fully subscribed, these were postponed owing to COVID-19, with the televised performance at PUH organised as an alternative.
Viriditas unfolded behind closed doors and in some of the hospitals’ most sensitive contexts. The research phase created a space for the expertise and experiences of staff and patients to be listened to and valued, whilst supporting the artist to achieve a depth of understanding and to experiment creatively with hospital resources. Though the residency provided a wealth of material for the artist’s interest in the failures of systems and their repercussions for the human spirit, this was less fitting to the overall programme themes than other strands of her research but can be used in her development of subsequent works.
Similarly, though the residency did not lead to a collaboration with the hospital choirs in this instance, the research process established that there would be sufficient interest from the choirs for Saolta Arts to explore this collaborative potential with other artists in future. The research phase also highlighted the problematics of an open invitation to create a vocal performance for public spaces in the acute hospital setting. The artist presented an apposite solution to the creative, environmental, logistical and documentation challenges presented by public thoroughfares or seated spaces by devising an intensive series of performances for selected care areas.
The artists deftly adapted each performance to the distinct tempo of each care context and encounter – from boisterous audiences wanting to join in to poignant moments with the critically ill. Whilst they had visited each site and met respective Clinical Nurse Managers in preparation for the performances, so much cannot be planned for in the ever changing, highly emotive acute hospital setting, and the success of the performances relied on the responsive skill and stamina of the artists and the openness of clinical staff who supported infection control procedures to ensure an inclusive approach.
The positive impact of bringing live vocal performances to patients and staff in clinical spaces was palpable. It was a reminder of the importance of supporting these unique human interactions, even if the benefits are only fleetingly observed – for a daughter to see her mother smile for the first time in weeks; for staff in a stroke unit to hear a patient break into song when they had spoken very little; and for the distinct voices of patients and visitors from a row of isolation rooms to be heard echoing down a corridor together. One visitor observed, 'Music is something familiar to Mum, something from home, and that is really important whilst she is in hospital. It can be such a long day here, initiatives like this are brilliant for lifting the spirits. It was wonderful to see her smiling.'
For the artist, a number of opportunities to perform Viriditas to other audiences, including in Berlin, were presented then cancelled owing to the restrictions forced by COVID-19 but it is hoped that these will be rescheduled.
Reflecting on the project Ceara said, 'I am always drawn to performing in specific sites and the experience of singing healing songs for patients, family and staff in the hospitals, for me, brought the intentionality of my work to a whole other level. It allowed me to connect with people in a very real and intimate way. The practice of singing to sooth and heal is ancient, and whilst Viriditas is a contemporary work, it is rooted in tradition, and performing it in a hospital felt like it belonged in the space. The songs and voice in this space were offered up for the purposes of creating moments of joy, fun and poignancy and to bring patients and staff together in new ways, outside their normal daily routines and patterns. It was one of the most beautiful projects I’ve ever worked on.'
Documentation & Dissemination
Viriditas was produced as a limited edition CD for distribution to patients at Saolta’s seven hospitals and for everyone else it is available for download online.
The initial series of performances at GUH were closed events and not open to the public, experienced by 268 staff, patients and their families. These were documented by two photographers.
Viriditas is a live project and is still in the process of being documented and disseminated. For updates visit https://saoltaarts.com/stories/viriditas/
Date of Publication
Research and engagement phase: September 2018 – September 2019
Staff singing workshops: May 2019
Performances: February and September 2020
CDs rolled out across Saolta: 2020 - 2021
Galway 2020 European Capital of Culture
Saolta University Health Care Group (including University Hospital Galway, Mayo University Hospital, Roscommon University Hospital, Portiuncula University Hospital, Sligo University Hospital and Letterkenny University Hospital)
Galway 2020 European Capital of Culture, Saolta Arts, Saolta University Health Care Group, Galway University Hospitals, Create, Arts Council
Donegal, Galway, Mayo, Roscommon, Sligo
Ceara Conway (lead artist)
Music, Visual Arts
Acute Hospitals, Older People
Nature of Project
Collaborative/ participatory, Performance, Research, Residency